Lavinia Goodell: Wisconsin's First Woman Lawyer

The first woman lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to fight for that status, overcoming opposition from the most powerful legal figure in the state. Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was also one of the first female trial lawyers in the United States, a nationally-respected writer, a Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, a candidate for Janesville City Attorney, a successful lobbyist, a jail reformer, and a temperance advocate. Yet she is undeservedly obscure. Another woman’s likeness adorns her spot in books, on the web, and at the Rock County Courthouse. Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer aims to secure her rightful place in history.

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“All men are commanded to repent. How significant that no women are thus commanded!”
Lavinia Goodell, May 1872

In early 1872, newspapers reported the scandalous story that Sarah Smiley, a Quaker woman, had been allowed to preach in a Brooklyn Presbyterian church. Lavinia Goodell, who had moved from Brooklyn to Janesville, Wisconsin the previous year, followed the story with interest and wrote a series of articles expressing her support that women should be allowed in the ministry – and
Continue Reading ‘All men are commanded to repent. How significant that no women are thus commanded!’

“Is woman’s position one of equality with man, or subjection to him?”
Lavinia Goodell, August 1873

In the summer of 1873, a year before she became a lawyer, Lavinia Goodell read an editorial titled “Woman Suffrage and Marriage” that had appeared in the Cincinnati Gazette. The premise of the piece was that there was no point in allowing women to vote because they would obviously vote in lock step with their husbands. As the Gazette put it, “To give
Continue Reading ‘Is woman’s position one of equality with man, or subjection to him?’

“If women be voted for, what shall longer hinder them from voting?”
Lavinia Goodell, March 1874

Lavinia Goodell was an avid reader and did not shy away from reading materials with which she disagreed. When that occurred, she would sometimes write a rebuttal piece in order to share her opposing viewpoint with the publication’s readers. She did this in March of 1874, three months before being admitted to practice law. Her target was an article in the Advance,
Continue Reading “If women be voted for, what shall long hinder them from voting?”

“The idea that the husband is the political representative of his wife is a fallacious one.”
Lavinia Goodell, May 1871

In another of her series of articles refuting commonly held beliefs about why women should not be allowed to vote, Lavinia Goodell rebutted the notions that there was no need for women to have the franchise because men already represented their views and that allowing women to participate in political decisions would create dissension in the home. She began:
Continue Reading “The idea that the husband is the political representative of his wife is a fallacious one.”

“Whether woman needs the ballot or not, the ballot needs her.”
Lavinia Goodell, June 1871

In 1871, shortly before she gave up her job at Harper’s Bazar in New York City and moved to Wisconsin to look after her elderly parents,

Lavinia Goodell wrote a series of articles for the Woman’s Journal dispelling common myths on why women should not vote. In a piece that appeared in the June 23, 1871 issue of the Woman’s Journal, refuted the notions
Continue Reading ‘Whether woman needs the ballot or not, the ballot needs her.’

“Hark! Is that the step of my first client that I hear approaching my door?”

Lavinia Goodell, July 14, 1874

Immediately after being admitted to practice law on June 17, 1874, Lavinia Goodell took steps to open a legal practice. She had hoped to join Pliny Norcross and A. A. Jackson in their practice, but while Norcross was willing to allow her to share their offices, Jackson was not, so Lavinia told her sister, “I shall have to
Continue Reading “Hark! Is that the step of my first client that I hear approaching my door?”

“The middle aged, grey headed individual who now addresses you is an honorable member of the Wisconsin bar.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 18, 1874

On the evening of Wednesday, June 17, 1874, after successfully passing a rigorous examination administered by three elder statesmen, Lavinia Goodell made history by being sworn in as Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. The following day she wrote a long letter to her cousin Sarah Thomas. Lavinia’s own words recount the excitement of the event far better
Continue Reading “The middle aged, grey headed individual who now addresses you is an honorable member of the Wisconsin bar.”

“I am bound to get in if I climb up the roof and go down the chimney.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 8, 1874

During the first two weeks of June 1874, Lavinia Goodell’s mind was consumed with plans to take the bar examination so that she could be admitted to practice law in Wisconsin. It was not clear until an hour prior to the examination on June 17 whether she would actually be allowed to sit for it. In a
Continue Reading “I am bound to get in if I climb up the roof and go down the chimney.”

“Ignorance is always dangerous.”

Lavinia Goodell, May 1871

In the second installment of her series of Woman’s Journal articles rebutting commonly touted reasons why women should not vote (read the about the first installment here), Lavinia Goodell focused on the claim that voting would disrupt the tranquility of the home and take women away from their traditional duties. Rubbish! declared Lavinia.

May 6, 1871 Woman’s Journal

Lavinia queried how much of a woman’s time would be spent in
Continue Reading “Ignorance is always dangerous.”

“A woman does not become unwomanly by entering fields in which man has heretofore been the principal worker.”
Lavinia Goodell, April 1871

Lavinia Goodell was a lifelong proponent of woman’s suffrage. Although American women did not win the right to the ballot until forty years after her death, during her lifetime Lavinia wrote many articles promoting suffrage. In April 1871, a few months before she left her job at Harper’s Bazar and moved to Wisconsin, Lavinia wrote the first
Continue Reading “A woman does not become unwomanly by entering fields in which man has heretofore been the principal worker.”

“The love of the aged is glorious.”

Lavinia Goodell, 1860

Lavinia Goodell was an astute observer, and she enjoyed writing about peoples’ relationships. In the summer of 1860, twenty-one year old Lavinia wrote a short story titled “Old Lovers” for her father’s newspaper, the Principia. The narrator of the story, a young woman, meets an elderly couple in the ladies’ sitting room of the train station in the “little village of C” in western New York. (“C” perhaps
Continue Reading “The love of the aged is glorious.”

“Baby’s rights was the watchword.”
Maria Goodell Frost, speaking of her sister Lavinia as an infant

On May 2, 1839, Rhoda Lavinia Goodell was born in Utica, New York.

A previous post recounted her father’s letter informing his father-in-law about the birth. Lavinia’s sister, Maria, who was twelve years old at the time, reminisced about the event in her unpublished biography of Lavinia:
Thursday, the 2nd day of May 1839 was ushered into the household a being who seemed
Continue Reading “Baby’s rights was the watchword.”

“If we are true to our own higher nature, we cannot fail.”

Lavinia Goodell, 1858

Graduation season is just around the corner. In 1858, Lavinia Goodell graduated from the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, a school for girls.

Lavinia wrote a graduation essay, which was read by a male professor at the commencement ceremony. Maria Goodell Frost included a rough draft of the essay in her unpublished biography of her sister. At age nineteen, Lavinia was still developing as a writer,
Continue Reading “If we are true to our own higher nature, we cannot fail.”

“Your time could not have been improved to better advantage than by reading law.”
Lavinia Goodell, September 1875

In late summer 1875, a little over a year after she was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin, Lavinia Goodell penned an article that appeared in the September 4, 1975 Woman’s Journal titled “Shall Women Study Law?” Her conclusion was a resounding “yes.”

Lavinia’s article answered six questions about the feasibility of women studying law. The first was “Had I better
Continue Reading “Your time could not have been improved to better advantage than by reading law.”

“Folks don’t write Sundays.”

Lavinia Goodell to her father, early 1840s

According to the unpublished biography of Lavinia Goodell written by her older sister, Maria Goodell Frost, Lavinia’s first experience attending church was in Whitesboro, New York. The minister was Rev. Beriah Green.

Beriah Green

Green was born in Connecticut in 1795. He became the pastor of a Congregational church in the early 1820s. By the 1830s he became acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison and became a staunch abolitionist,
Continue Reading “Folks don’t write Sundays.”

“She shall be worth ten thousand dollars to you, Brother Goodell.”
Attorney Alvan Stewart to William Goodell, 1842

One of the first lawyers Lavinia Goodell ever met was Alvan Stewart.

Alvan Stewart, Esq.

Born in 1790 in New York State, Stewart had the reputation of a brilliant lawyer. Alvan Stewart moved to Utica in 1832, and the Goodell family was living in Utica at the time of Lavinia’s birth in 1839. In addition to his law practice, Stewart was
Continue Reading “She shall be worth ten thousand dollars to you, Brother Goodell.”